This Phonetic Labyrinth

Throughout my entire teaching career, I have used this poem in my classes.  Since “pretiring,” I have continued to share it with all the colleagues I can.  It is a most amazing poem and has made my students understand the reality that English is inherently hard and therefore French isn’t actually any harder to learn.  I got this, I believe, in my sophomore year in college, maybe freshman, from a very dear French professor. 

My tact in using it is to have the students read the poem aloud until a mistake in pronunciation is made.  At that point, the next student takes over.  They are always amazed at how they have been tricked and/or how hard it really is, and how little they really know.  Granted, some of the words are a bit archaic and/or a bit “British” rather than American, but it really gets the idea across and is a great educational tool.

As far as I know, the author is unknown, I have printed it exactly as I received it just about forty years ago.


The following was written during World War II by a Dutchman whose knowledge of English was very extensive.  It was published in “Vrig Nederland,” a publication produced by Dutch refugees.  USIS Paris wishes to pay its respect to the writer and acknowledge its indebtedness to the unknown benefactor-author.

Dearest creature in creation, studying English pronunciation,

I will teach you in my verse, sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse,

I will keep you, Susy, busy, make your head with heat grow dizzy;

Tear in eye, your dress you’ll tear–so shall I!  Oh, hear my prayer!

Pray console your loving poet, make my coat look new, dear, sew it!

Just compare heart, beard, and heard, dies, diet, lord and word,

Sword  and sward, retain and Britain (mind the latter, how it’s written!)

Made has not the sound of bade;  say–said;  pay–paid;  laid, but plaid.

Now I surely will not plague you with such words as vague and ague,

But be careful how you speak, say break and steak, but bleak and streak,

Previous, precious, fuchsia, via, pipe, snipe, recipe, choir,

Cloven, oven; how and low, script, receipt, shoe, poem, toe.

Hear me say, devoid of trickery, daughter, laughter and Terpsichore,

Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles, exiles, similes, reviles;

Wholly, holly, signal, signing; Thames, examining, combining;

Scholar, vicar and cigar, solar, mica, war and far.

From desire, desirable;  admirable from admire.  Lumber, plumber;  bier but brier;

Chatham, brougham, renown but known from knowledge;  done, but gone and tone;

One, anemone;  Balmoral;  kitchen, lichen;  laundry, laurel;

Gertrude, German;  wind and mind;  Scene, Melpomene, mankind;

Tortoise, turquoise, chamois-leather, Reading, reading, heathen, heather.

This phonetic labyrinth gives moss, gross, block, brooch, ninth and plinth.

Billet does not sound like ballet;  bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet;

Blood and flood are not like food, nor is mould like should and would.

Banquet gives no clue to parquet, which is said to rhyme with darky.

Viscous, viscount;  load and broad;  toward, to forward, to reward.

Your pronunciation’s okay when you say, correctly, croquet;

Rounded, wounded;  live and grieve;  friend and fiend;  alive and sleeve;

Liberty, library, heave and heaven;  Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven.

We say hallowed, but allowed;  people, leopard;  towed, but vowed.

Make the difference, moreover, ‘twixt mover, plover, and then Dover.

Leeches, breaches;  wise, precise;  chalice, but police and lice;

Camel, constable, unstable;  principle, disciple, label;

Petal, penal and canal;  wait, surprise, plait, promise, pal;

Suit, suite, ruin;  circuit, conduit, rhyme with “shirk it” and “beyond it.”

But it’s very hard to tell why it’s pall, mall, but Pall Mall.

Muscle, muscular;  goal;  iron;  timber, climber;  bullion, lion;

Worm and storm;  chaise, chaos, chair;  senator, spectator, mayor;

Ivy, privy;  famous;  clamour and enamour rhyme with hammer.

Pussy, hussy and possess.  Golf, wolf;  countenance;  lieutenants;

Hoist, in lieu of flagg, left pennants.  River, rival;  tomb, bomb, comb;

Doll and roll and some and home.  Stranger does not sound like anger.

Neither does devour like clangour.  Soul but foul, and gaunt but aunt;

Pont, front, wont;  want, grand and grant;  shoes, goes, does.  Now first say finger,

Then say singer, ginger, linger.  Real and zeal;  mauve, gauze and gauge;

Marriage, foliage, mirage, age.  Query does not rhyme with very

Nor does fury sound like bury.  Doest, lost, post;  doth, cloth and loth

Job, Job;  blossom, bosom;  oath.  Though the difference seems little.

We say actual but victual;  seat and sweat;  chaste, paste and caste;

Leigh and eight and freight and height;  put, nut;  granite and unite.

Feiffer does not rhyme with heifer, nor does reefer rhyme with zephyr.

Dull, bull;  Goeffrey, George;  ate, late;  hint, pint, senate and sedate.

Scenic, phrenic and pacific;  science, conscience, scientific;

Tour but our;  and succour, four;  Core provides a rhyme for door.

Gas, alas, and pass, and was–Dickens started off as “Boz.”

Sea, idea, guinea, area;  psalm and charm;  Maria, malaria;

Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean;  doctrine, turpentine, marine.

Look but alien and Italian;  dandelion and battalion,

Sallied, allied;  yea and  ye–eye, I say, aye, why, hey, quay!

Say, over, but ever, fever, neither, leisure, skein, deceiver.

Never guess–it is not safe;  we say claves, valves, half, but Ralph.

Heron, granary, canary, crevice, and device, and eyrie;

Face, but preface and efface;  phlegm, phlegmatic;  ass, glass, bass;

Large, but tarter;  gin, give, verging.   Ought, out, joust and scour;  and urging.

Ear, but earn;  and wear and tear do not rhyme with here, but there.

Seven is right and so is even, hyphen, roughen, nephews, Stephen,

Monkey, donkey, clerk and jerk;  asp, grasp, wasp;  and cork and work.

Tunnel surely rhymes with funnel?  Yes, it does– and so does gunwale.

Islington and Isle of Wight, Housewife, verdict and indict.

Aren’t you mived up, reader, rather, saying lather, bather, father?

Finally, what rhymes with tough?  Though, through, plough or cough?  Enough!

Hiccough has the sound of “cup”–

My advice is — “Give it up!”

Language Class can be fun?

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Who said that language class cannot be fun?  One of the most interesting units I had along with my colleague, Adrienne, was the wonderful unit where we would bring out the paint and create canvases.  The initial reaction of my students was always interesting. “I cannot even draw!” I would quickly tell them that, number one, I wasn’t an art teacher so the criticism wouldn’t be heavy duty and that it was set up so that anyone could have success.

The Unit was on Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) and was oh so much fun.  I would have asked them ahead of time to bring in some paint, some brushes, a canvas, and some newspaper. I always had paper towels and usually had leftover materials from previous years just in case they forgot, and someone always did.

The way it worked was that I had made transparencies of the illustrations in the book to be put on an overhead projector.  The illustrations, by Antoine de St. Exupéry, are quite simple and yet rich in visual beauty.  I would have several overhead projectors set up and we would go to work.  The students would project the transparency of interest right on the canvas.  They could pencil it in and then paint.  I told them that they could do whatever they wanted with creativity, change colors, add to it, whatever.  Initial concerns of “I cannot do this” quickly changed into delight as the focus of class had totally changed for a moment.  It was a great break from the usual activities.  More often than not, a majority of the students managed to get the outline of the picture they were doing and some actual acrylics on the canvas the first class period.  I believe, if memory serves me well, it took no more than one, at the most two class periods beyond this to finish.  The resulting canvases were displayed around the classroom as they dried.

We generally planned for these to be made prior to National French Week, which was a very large undertaking in the school.  We had all sorts of things planned.  National French Week (la Semaine du Français) also coincided with parent/teacher conferences and the display always made students and parents very proud.  French is not as popular as Spanish, obviously, and French teachers need to be very pro-active in making sure that the enrollment stays up.  The crazy idea that Spanish is easier was omnipresent and false, to say the least.  It is a phonetic language, but let me tell you, get into the heavy grammar and French is easier.  Can we talk “subjunctive?”

 The pictures were then displayed in the halls and in the Staff Cafeteria with their names and class displayed.  The students were oh so proud of them and I have to say that they always came out beautifully.  They were like jewels decorating our building.

Students always fondly remembered the painting unit and I have to say that it was probably one of the biggest successes during the year as students, even if not the most competent French speakers, could revel in their success as “artists!” 

A special thanks to Adrienne who picked up this unit from a Seminar she attended.

Oh, and by the way, the images you see are actual paintings done by the students and totally representative of the final product.

The student requirements:

1 canvas (12×16 or larger)

1 small set of acrylic paints

2-3 brushes, assorted sizes (these can be shared by several people)

(optional) 1 fine paint marker for outlining

1 small sponge for different effects

1 small cup, several paper towels, and a newspaper section

Classroom Management

Classroom Management is a very important item for any teacher, be he/she novice or seasoned professional.  There were so many things that I learned from so many people and students regarding how to conduct a participatory class without falling prey to so much stimulation that it got out of hand and lost its focus.

Despite what looks like an easy job, a novice or a person having no idea how hard good teaching can be, could easily find that it is an overwhelming, extremely tiring job.  Without proper preparation, it is!  I have often wondered how few days a regular Joe from off the street would last, if not even hours or minutes.  It might sometimes look like play, but it is anything but!

One major thing is to be organized.  If a teacher knows where he/she is going with a lesson plan and stays on task, it is less likely that kids will lose their train of thought.  The organization, however, is such that it must be flexible if things go awry, for example. Let’s say there is a fire drill, a strange happening in the hall, or such.  Flexibility is very necessary.  A good teacher always has a plan for the unexpected.  This is especially important when it comes to technology and language labs as you never know what will go wrong and/or not function.

Having the students aware as to the goal of the lesson and how well things are proceeding toward reaching that goal helps immensely.  I always used something either on the board (before the advent of good technology in my classroom) or my electronic lesson plan posted on either the overhead projector or on the screen (when I had put my lesson plan into a database).  We could check off things as we went toward the finale.  I always posted yesterday’s and the current day’s homework as well.  Students would find this as well online or by coming into my office.  Knowing the rationale for where one is going is a great strategy to aid the educational outcomes.

Avoiding sitting at the teacher’s desk is something I always practiced.  When one is out and about in a dynamic lesson, it is less likely that students will pass notes, talk to one another when they shouldn’t and the like.  I am not saying I didn’t have moments where I needed to be at my desk, but overall it was something I avoided.  Being in the proximity of students, especially those prone to being “off task” is a very good practice.  A really naughty child might find me sitting behind him/her for a moment or just running the lesson standing nearby.

Not embarrassing problematic students is a good practice.  When at all possible, taking the student aside, preferably later if possible, is a good philosophy.  Finding out what is going on in their minds is so important.  Perhaps something is bothering them, a family calamity, a personal crisis, whatever.  It is always good to communicate; good communication circumvents all sorts of issues.

One thing that earlier in my career I never practiced was (and of course this is dependent on school and/or departmental policies) to allow them to eat and drink in class, especially if it was in the afternoon.  A student falling victim to a carbohydrate attack, as I found from my own children at home, may not be pleasant.  Students, more often than not, are not eating appropriately.  They might skip breakfast, not have the types of good food they should, and will react accordingly.  My rule was this, food is fine as long as it is not junk food, not messy and noisy, and I have no clean up.  I would always clear my room before leaving; it is not fair for another class and teacher to have to deal with a mess.  If students became messy, the food and/or drink was no longer allowed.  Case closed.  Once this was in play, I never had a problem.  Students are intelligent, figured out why I was okay with this, and were always respectful.

Gum chewing is a tough one with languages as it changes the pronunciation of hard to pronounce words.  In the beginning of my career, I never allowed it, but I soon realized that the amount of time I was taking to police students just wasn’t worth it.  If I found it on the desks, there was a price to pay, but if it was done respectfully, it was allowed.

Participation was always something I graded as communication in the target language (French in my case) was an expectation.  I expected them to take risks, make mistakes, speak, I didn’t even mind if they spoke to each other as long as it was in French.  A productive classroom has to have a certain amount of noise; otherwise it is nothing more than a showcase, dictatorial class.  My idea was to be more of a guide to my students, not a visiting lecturer.

I mentioned this before, but respect for one another is the most important thing and a base for everything that goes on in a classroom.  I used to take several days at the beginning of the year to go over all of the expectations and explain classroom operations so that students understood and behaved accordingly.

Talking about all of this makes me think of the time I was in the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris with some sixteen students or so and a colleague.  A man came up to me and said, “You couldn’t possibly be with all those students?”  My response to him was “Yes, and it is a pleasure and a privilege to be with them.”  He was quite surprised at the good comportment they displayed.  This was all due to a different version of my classroom management, a version for a trip abroad.  I did this for some ten years and was truthfully never disappointed.  My students always rose to the occasion and were amazing examples of good, tolerant, kind Americans as they traveled abroad and even lived with French families for two weeks!

I will return to this item in the future and offer more of my thoughts and ideas.